Monday, March 1, 2010

The Last Resort

February 25, 1986
Providence, RI

The frigid wind could cut through steel.

Inside the small trailer that served as his office, Gerry Houle used a pair of pliers to turn the broken knob on the electric space heater in an attempt to coax more heat from it. The spring shaped elements hummed and glowed bright red but did precious little to warm the space. Cold air continued to creep in through the drafty window and around the poorly sealed door.

After rubbing his hands briskly in front of the heater he turned to face the desk.

The red light on his answering machine winked at him. When he pressed the play messages button the machine went through a series of clicks and whirs while the tape rewound. When it reached the beginning it slowly reversed direction and began playing the message. Gerry recognized the voice of Fred Love immediately.

“Hidey-ho Gerry, this is your favorite Architect, Fred Love. I hope you’re staying warm out there. Give me a call when you can, we’ve got to discuss that issue again.”

There was a barely audible click followed by several seconds of silence until the machine began to whir and click again as it reset the tape for more messages.

Pushing aside a pile of papers and a Styrofoam coffee cup, he picked up the phone and pressed the first speed-dial button.

While he listened to the ringing at the other end he inspected the inside of the coffee cup. Midway through the second ring the call was answered by a youthful, polite, female voice. The pleasant tone of her voice told Gerry she was not struggling to stay warm.

“Good morning, Thomlinson, Jones and Bergstrom, how may I help you?”

Gerry sat up straight and tossed the empty cup toward the trash can where it bounced off the rim and landed on the floor.

“Hi, this is Gerry Houle; can I speak to Fred Love, please?”

“Good morning, Gerry, one moment, please,” the polite voice replied, followed by a click and a horrible muzak rendition of The Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night”.

Gerry tried to ignore the blasphemous muzak by watching the activity outside his window.

The sound of a truck horn signaled coffee-break time as a white catering truck rolled through the gate onto the construction site. The words “Martin’s Catering” were painted on the stainless steel sides of the rear compartment of the truck. A steady stream of water dripped from the undercarriage and steam rose out of the top.

Gerry watched as a dozen men descended on the truck like cowhands responding to the dinner bell. The multiple layers of clothing they wore in defense against the savage wind made it impossible to recognize any of them with the exception of Rich Garcia, the assistant project manager, who was discussing something with the steel fabricator. Garcia had more fashion sense than common sense so his only protection from the biting cold was a maroon Members Only jacket.

After opening the flip-up doors on the back of the catering truck Martin stood by the rear corner with one hand in the pocket of his tattered gray sweatshirt and the other, covered with a fingerless black glove, poised on his change dispenser. The stub of an unlit cigar was clenched between his teeth.

Just as “A Hard Days Night” came to an end, Gerry heard a click and the muzak was replaced by the cheerful voice of Fred Love.

“Fred Love speaking.”

Without seeing the man, Gerry knew there was a broad smile on his face and a bow tie around his neck.

“Hi, Fred, Gerry Houle here.”

“Howdy-do, Gerry, thanks for getting back to me this quickly.”

“No problem, Fred, what can I do for you?” Gerry asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“Gerry, I’m not at my desk, let me put you on hold for one minute.”

Gerry heard another click followed by the muzak version of “Mack the Knife”.

The temperature inside the trailer was inching its way toward 60 degrees, which was balmy compared to the 35 degree outside temperature. The trailer also protected Gerry from the 25 mile-per-hour winds, which produced a wind-chill temp of 23.

Twenty-five years in the New England construction industry meant that Gerry had worked in cold weather more than he cared to think about. Having worked his way up to superintendent at least afforded him the quasi-luxury of a heated (a term to be used loosely) trailer to work in.

Gerry continued to watch through his window as the workers outside, mostly masons, huddled behind a twenty-foot high concrete block wall seeking protection against the wind as they drank coffee and ate donuts or muffins. Garcia and the steel fabricator stood in the shelter of the wall discussing something over a set of folded blueprints.

Memories of days spent walking the iron ten stories up in similar weather made Gerry shiver involuntarily. Thank Christ he didn’t have to do that anymore.

“Poor bastards,” Gerry muttered to himself as a huge wind gust rocked the trailer.

A click in his ear piece and Fred was back on the line.

“Okee-dokee, Gerry, sorry about that.”

“No problem, Fred.”

“Gerry, I’ll cut right to the chase-er-ino,” Fred said. “Our engineer is getting very upset about those unbraced block walls. We’ve made several calls to your office, written two letters to your boss; the second one was hand delivered yesterday, and nothing’s being done.”

Gerry cringed when Fred referred to Glenn Worden as “his boss”, even though it was technically true, Gerry had never worked for a person that he despised as much. In Gerry’s opinion, Worden would sell his mother into slavery if there was enough profit in it.

“I understand Fred, but there isn’t much I can do about it.”

“I know that, Gerry, I just wanted to warn you that our next step is to issue a stop work order on him.”

The men outside continued their efforts to avoid the cold wind and enjoy a hot cup of coffee before it became a cold cup of coffee.

Gerry watched as the wind caused the top of the wall to sway several inches. Fred and the Engineer were rightfully concerned. With no roof framing to secure the top of the wall wind like this could easily topple it.

Fred’s voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Are you there, Gerry?”

What Gerry witnessed next was so surreal that it failed to register with him right away. It didn’t happen in slow motion the way it does in the movies, it happened in a matter of about three seconds.

As the wind continued its relentless assault on the wall, the men huddled behind it. Twenty feet above them, the force of the gusts moved the wall. Gerry expected it to move six inches or so and then return to its former position but it didn’t.

It continued to move, a foot, two feet, five feet.

On the ground, the construction workers continued eating and drinking, unaware of what was happening above them.

Gerry watched in mute horror as four tons of concrete block wall hurdled toward the ground and the unsuspecting men.

“Gerry? Did I lose you?” Fred asked.

“Holy shit,” Gerry muttered as he dropped the phone.

As the phone landed on the floor, the 20-foot high, 60-foot long concrete block wall landed on the ground with a massive thud, like the muffled bass drum of the gods. Gerry felt the concussion in his feet. Pieces of concrete block flew off in every direction. Despite the frozen ground, dust rose in a giant plume.

Gerry was transfixed in his spot.

A second earlier there had been men sitting there, eating donuts, talking about the Super Bowl, commiserating about the cold or discussing what they would do when they inevitably won the lottery. Now there was a pile of broken and silent concrete blocks with pieces of twisted steel reinforcing pointing uselessly in all directions.

There was no movement.

Other than the tinny sound of Fred’s voice coming through the phone, the only sound Gerry heard was the wind roaring outside the trailer.

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